Lewis Turco, The Museum of Ordinary People, Reviewed by Miriam N. Kotzin
This book ought to come with a warning. You’ll stay up late and put aside chores in order to keep reading these compelling stories. If a collection of fiction is good, you’ll want to savor the prose, think about the ideas and read another, as you will with these. But you won’t expect the book to have the same insistent pull on you to keep going that you’d find in a popular novel. Lewis Turco’s The Museum of Ordinary People, however, will keep you reading, pull you from one story to the next. Although some of the patterns are those of entrapment, abandonment and loss, a strong life force perfuses this well-crafted and passionate, deeply textured collection.
Like the title story, the book itself is a “Museum of Ordinary People”, some in ordinary, others in extraordinary situations. While these stories aren’t all linked (as in, say, Winesburg Ohio) some imagery recurs, such as a god’s eye, and a mechanical canary in a raffia cage, which becomes associated with the life force. While these items are evocative the first time we encounter them, when we come upon them again, an echo of their former context increases their power as symbols.
Some of the stories have elements of the supernatural: “The Museum of Ordinary People,” and “The Chimney in the Sand,” for example. In these stories, it isn’t only the supernatural that commands attention—though its presence is undeniable. It’s the character development.
In the title story, Janet and Harold, a married couple whose children had disappeared nearly ten years earlier, are the protagonists: “The pain had diminished over time until it was a dreary ache, but it was there, always. Every now and again it would put out a blossom of poison and then fade. It was the same for both of them.” The phrase “blossom of poison” is representative of the brilliant turns of language found throughout The Museum of Ordinary People, at once beautiful and economical.
Much of this story is devoted to the loss of the children. When Janet and Howard are in a wax museum, each of the figures speaks in such a natural way that the two have difficulty remembering that the waitress, the fisherman, the policeman are exhibits, not real people. As they go through the museum, “They lost track of time. Every room held a crowd of ordinary people who spoke to them, offered advice, asked directions, complained...” Finally, they decide to go up an attic stairway where they find relics: “a god’s eye raveling, next to a girl’s ballerina slipper, a box of toys, Christmas tree ornaments.” The attic was “a dim place where time lay in keeping.” Dear Reader, you think you know what’s going to happen, do you? Don’t bet on it.
What makes these stories so compelling is that while they are character driven, they also have strong plots. At times the suspense is harrowing. In the “Chimney in the Sand,” a couple whose marriage is in trouble buys a house on the Maine coast. They find a chimney protruding from the sand, voices of an arguing couple rise from the chimney, voices Carl and Mary hear, but which are silent when the policeman comes to investigate. Carl insists, against Mary’s protest, on digging down to them. And then he’s down in the pit without the ladder, and then...
One of the most affecting of these stories is “Lemon Ice.” By naming his protagonist “Lewis”, Turco increases the poignancy of the narrative, a little boy’s thwarted quest for lemon ice on a hot summer’s day. The reader learns about Meriden’s barber shop, the ice wagon, the grocery, the butcher, his father’s study on the porch, the child’s aquaria. “It is almost as though [Lewis] is inhabiting two different days at the same time—for yes, he has felt the breath of autumn stirring and rustling among the leaves.” “Lemon Ice” works on a number of levels: a child’s experience of a particular small town summer in l945 and 1946; a meditation on the nature of memory; a lament about the passage of time, experienced in unsatisfied yearning: “Lew’s mouth is as dry as the last leaf in a sheaf of leaves in. Who knows where he is now? Perhaps it is no longer even autumn.” The desire for that lemon ice modulates until it becomes a desire for all that’s vanished
In any writing—perhaps especially so in short fiction—the successful author has to know where and how to begin—and then when and how to end. Turco knows both. He knows, too, how to make the path from the first to the last sentence, when to use description, when dialogue. His language is exact and evocative. Although one of the characters’ favorite poet is Wesli Court (Turco’s formal-verse alter-ego.)—and although some stories have the feel of memoir, the writing is never about him it’s always in service of the story.
Lewis Turco. The Museum of Ordinary People. Scottsdale, Arizona, 2008. 196pp. $19.95.
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